Protesters at Site of New Terminal 5, Heathrow

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Protesters at Site of New Terminal 5, Heathrow


By: David Dyson

Date: October 6, 2003

Source: Getty Images

About the Photographer: This picture was taken by David Dyson near Heathrow Airport in London. Protestors were dramatizing their objection to the massive planned expansion of the airport.


A number of environmental and local activist groups have opposed the planned expansion of Heathrow Airport in London—the world's busiest airport. The ten-year expansion plan would cost $12.77 billion and involve the construction of a third runway and a fifth terminal building. The owner of Heathrow, BAA (British Airports Authority), has published plans for the demolition of some seven hundred homes in order to make room for the new construction, and according to the British Department of Transport, noise pollution from the expansion will affection an additional 26,000 people (up from 307,000).

The proposed Terminal five is far larger than the existing four terminals; the planned expansion would approximately double the size of Heathrow. The number of flights would increase by about 40 percent and the number of passengers handled annually from about sixty million a year to over eighty million a year. Advocates of expansion say that it is necessary to "develop Heathrow in a way that allows it to retain its premier position" as the primary "hub" airport of western Europe, a status also sought by airports in Amsterdam and Paris.

Heathrow was built on farmland just outside London in 1947. Opponents argue that the airport expansion breaks a 1980 promise by BAA that Terminal four would be the last expansion, contradicts the Government's own planning inspector's 2001 statement that a third runway would create "such severe and widespread impacts on the environment as to be totally unacceptable," and would increase air pollution from road traffic to the airport and from increased air traffic. They also point out that some proposed expansions, such as of the airport at Stansted, England, will destroy nearby green spaces. In the case of Stansted, the proposal would result in the total or partial clearing of six areas of "ancient" woods, i.e., forest that has been continuously wooded for at least four hundred years. Only 2 percent of Britain is covered by ancient woodland.



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Airport expansion, and opposition to it, is occurring not only at Heathrow but at a number of airports in the UK and Europe. Proposed expansions at Gatwick and Manchester airports in England, at Belfast airport in Northern Ireland (UK), and at Edinburgh airport in Scotland are all being opposed. In the United States as of 2005, eighteen of the country's thirty-one large "hub" airports intended to build new runways. Air traffic is expanding globally.

Jet aircrafts burn high-grade kerosene, a liquid fossil fuel, and are highly polluting. U.S. airlines burn about twenty billion gallons of fuel a year. Boston's Logan airport, a typical large U.S. airport, is one of the largest polluters in Massachusetts and is forecasted by the state to be the largest polluter by 2010. An eight hundred-mile hop by a Boeing 737 (a typical European flight) produces twenty seven tons of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) as well as nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and volatile organic compounds. Even the water produced by jet aircraft, which crystallizes into jet vapor trails (contrails) at high altitude, is a pollutant: the large number of contrails formed by global jet traffic, and of the cirrus clouds whose formation is triggered by them, are believed to contribute to global climate change. As of 2005, commercial air travel was contributing about 3.5 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions, as opposed to 25 percent from electric generating stations (mostly coal), but commercial air traffic was growing steadily and its contribution to greenhouse emissions was forecast to rise to 15 percent by about 2016.

The problem may be slightly lessened by more efficient airplanes. Jet aircraft of modern design burn significantly less than those of the 1960s, when jumbo jets for civilian travel first became commonplace—the aircraft industry claims that new aircraft are 70 percent more efficient than 60s-vintage craft. The Europeanbuilt Airbus A380, the world's largest airliner, holds up to eight hundred passengers and burns thirteen percent less fuel than the Boeing 747, which holds only 524 passengers. Assuming no empty seats, an A380 would thus use only 0.57 times as much fuel as a 747 per passenger mile. Switching entirely to A380s while doubling the number of passenger-miles would lead to only a 1.14 times increase in fuel consumption.

However, these are oversimplified calculations. Most aircraft will not be Airbus A380s but will continue to be older aircraft, for reasons of cost. Also, calculations of the contribution of air travel to greenhouse gases already take into account the likely increased average efficiency of the aircraft fleet. Improved air-traffic control can also save fuel: aircraft that idle on the ground or circle waiting to land consume tremendous quantities of fuel without providing any service.

Low-pollution alternatives to air travel include vacationing closer to home, teleconferencing for business travelers, and rail travel.



"Anger at Heathrow Expansion Plans." BBC News. June 20, 2005. Available online at: 〈〉 (accessed February 18, 2006).

Bonné, Jon. "Crowded Skies Impact Air Quality: Jet Emissions Get Scant Focus in U.S., but Issue on U.N. Agenda for Climate Talks.〉 MSNBC News. July 16, 2005. Available online at: 〈〉 (accessed February 18, 2006).

"Gatwick Runway Protest Launched.〉 BBC News. May 30, 2005. Available online at: 〈〉 (accessed February 18, 2006).

Symonds, Tom. "Airlines Sport Their Green Colours.〉 BBC News. June 20, 2005. Available online at: 〈〉 (accessed February 18, 2006).

Web sites

Friends of the Earth [an anti-expansion group]. December 3, 2001. "London Heathrow Airport." 〈〉 (accessed February 9, 2006).

Future Heathrow [a pro-expansion group]. 〈〉 (accessed February 17, 2006).

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Protesters at Site of New Terminal 5, Heathrow

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